True to Nature: Trees in Scottish Art
Trees, as an extension of the natural landscape, have been weighted with meaning throughout the history of art. Over time allegory gave way to the decorative and picturesque. The broader meanings and metaphors, however, remained. Our exhibition, starting with Alexander Nasmyth (1758- 1840), looks at paintings by Scottish artists and how they’ve used trees either as their subject, or as features within a composition.
Nasmyth’s arcadian landscape painting clearly references Claude Lorrain (1600-82), and like Claude, Nasmyth uses trees to evoke mood. In many of his works, and in his sons Patrick and James’s work, which is also in this exhibition, regular use is made of the timeless metaphor of stumps and blasted trees alongside young, verdant ones: barren versus fruitful; growth, decline and regrowth. Horatio McCulloch’s (1805-1867) sweeping vista of the Trossachs includes woodland and copses and a tangle of undergrowth, replete with adder. However, what is immediately striking about his picture is the stand of Scots Pine. Tall and elegant, they set the tone and capture the pride that McCulloch conveys in his native land.
Bridging the centuries is a small watercolour by a little-known painter, William Hackstoun (1855-1921). In a slightly surreal landscape, a copse of highly stylised trees stands over a ploughman. They add an unsettling air to the scene. Encouraged to draw and paint by the writer and art critic John Ruskin, Hackstoun benefitted from Ruskin’s edict to look at "ordinary forest or copses".
By the 20th century the depiction of trees in paintings comes back to the allegorical. Barbara Balmer’s Cloister Garden, San Gimignano is a morass of trees and vegetation within architectural confines. The plants appear sentient. Her schematically defined trees in compositions devoid of people are weighted with the psychological presence of human life and its complexities. John Byrne’s trees and undergrowth spring entirely from the imagination. Carefully and knowingly composed, his arboreal world is one of threat to imposters. His trees are used for concealment.
The mysteries of growth and decay that artists have explored over centuries is a hot topic right now. Ecology is at the forefront of public debate. Wouldn’t it be good to think that some of the trees in these paintings have lived on long past the artists that painted them.